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« Death ~ There’s Nothing Pretentious about Sadness | Main | rUK, Fashion, TV and the Free Market All Down the Rabbit Hole »

Death ~ There’s Nothing Fearful about Nothingness

I recently read Death and the Afterlife by the philosopher Samuel Scheffler. The book is actually two lectures and an essay by Scheffler with commentaries from four other leading philosophers. It’s important to note that by afterlife Scheffler is not talking about the continuing existence of an individual after death. He’s talking about the continuation of the human species after an individual’s death and what that means for the understanding and valuing of our lives. It’s a very interesting book, though I have to confess I was sympathetic to his argument going in. However, reading the book naturally got me thinking about my own death and that’s what I want to talk about.

Believe me, I don’t obsess about my death, though reading Sheffler’s book and having had cancer does tend to bring the subject to mind. So here goes an initial faltering incomplete attempt of actually thinking about what my death means to me.

When I contemplate my death three words stand out: Fear, Sadness and Bewilderment.


It’s important to realise I distinguish easily between my fear of the way I will die and my fear of death itself. Being frightened that I may die a painful or violent death is not the same thing as fearing death itself. So let’s put that aside.

I suspect I’m not along in fearing one’s death. Though Epicurus (341-270 BC) assured us a long time ago that there was nothing to fear[1], death can still frighten the bejeebers out of us. And yet, when I try to locate the source of my fear, the referent behind the fear, I run into difficulty.

I do not believe I will continue as a self-conscious, self-identifying being after my death. The best I can hope for is that my atoms will return to the cosmic dust and in time will contribute to the creation of something new (a sun would be nice). I believe I will cease to exist as a sentient being. No more Dale. So perhaps it is the fear of non-existence that frightens me. If so, such a fear strikes me as an unreasonable emotional response to an idea (death is only an idea because it hasn’t happened yet) built on the rather unsubstantial foundation of nothingness. There is nothing to fear about non-existence, it simply is what it is: the absence of my self-conscious existence, or the absence of my being. I did not exist before I was born and when I contemplate that non-existent state I don’t experience fear (actually I don’t experience anything). So why fear my non-existence after death? There’s nothing fearful about nothingness. And yet, when it’s late at night and the world is asleep and I contemplate my death, which is inevitable (my death, not the contemplation), it can be frightening.

Perhaps the locus of my fear is found in the sometimes disturbing knowledge that I will miss out on so much: the love of my wife and friends, the chance to participate in their lives, the things I’ve left undone, the fact that the human adventure, indifferent to both my existence and non-existence, will go on just fine without me (and here we touch upon Scheffler’s Afterlife), and that eventually I will be completely forgotten[2]. There is much I wish I were not going to miss. For example, I often say that I regret I will not be alive when scientists finally discover life somewhere off our home planet. But it is not fear that I experience when contemplating the things I will miss. It is sadness – which I will speak about next week.

Perhaps, for at least some of us, there is something inherently fearful about the knowledge that we will cease to exist, even though there is no logical reason to fear non-existence. When you do not exist you obviously cannot experience anything, including fear and death. However, there is a complete school of thought in psychology I stumbled across called terror management theory (TMT) which says that humans as sentient beings are able to understand their own deaths and that this ability “creates an anxiety in humans; it [death] strikes at unexpected and random moments, and its nature is essentially unknowable, causing people to spend most of their time and energy to explain, forestall, and avoid it.”  

A painting by Kurt VonnegutSo I am forced to wonder if the fear stems from the not knowing when I will actually die, not knowing my unexpected and random moment. Paul Ricoeur, in Living Up to Death, makes the point that my death before the fact is just a make-believe death. My death awaited lacks certitude because I simply do not know when I will die. As Ricoeur said, I oscillate between my “appetite for life and the grace of insouciance.”[3] Could it be that it is easier to cope with the concept of non-existence rather than the not knowing when it will begin? Does the not knowing frighten me? Well, at times it certainly makes me uneasy, but I mostly experience that insouciance Ricoeur was talking about. And sitting here now as the clock approaches midnight I find it difficult to locate real fear in the not knowing.

However, when I was diagnosed with cancer I thought it a real possibility that I would be given an estimated end time. It was the anticipation that I might know when I was going to die that frightened me. I think my fear grew from the knowledge that that which I know intellectually – I  am going to die someday – might become a knowing in a qualitatively different way – I am going to die on this day. As the full implications of my diagnosis hit home the inevitability of my death became crushing. The transition from death as an idea, something that will happen someday, to death as a impending reality, something that will happen today or tomorrow, was frightening (so much so that I destroyed a lamp in the living room, the unfortunate object that was in my reach at that crucial moment). Obviously there is a psychological finesse going on here. Death that will happen some unknown day is distant. Death that will happen one day soon seems immediate. While both deaths are in the future, the first is vague and the second is specific. Specificity in death is scary.

Well, enough for now. Next week: Death ~ There’s Nothing Pretentious about Sadness.

Copyright © 2014 Dale Rominger

[1] “So death, the most terrifying ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since fro the former it is not, and the latter are no more.” Epicurus, Epistula ad Menoeceuum in Scheffler, Samuel. Death and the Afterlife. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 84.
[2] I have achieved nothing that will get me into the history books. In time my immediate family (wife, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews) and friends will die and with them the memory of me. Perhaps some of my sisters children’s children or my friends’ children might think of me for an odd moment, but eventually they too will die. All trace of me will disappear.
[3] Ricoeur, Paul. Living up to Death. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London. 2009, p. Xiii.

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